Methagora: Whose genes are they?


The first gene patent was granted in 1982 for the sequence encoding insulin. Today ~ 20% of the human genome is patented. And the controversy is as alive as ever as we discuss in this month’s editorial. 

Gene patents have supporters who see them as essential for the development of diagnostic and therapeutic products and detractors who see them as hindering research directly and indirectly.

We think that Myriad Genetics’ patents on BRCA 1 and 2, and how these patents have been upheld in court challenges in the US, illustrate how gene patents can elicit cases of preemptive obedience which is problematic for patients and researchers alike.

While it is not clear that Myriad’s patents on BRCA 1 and 2 are infringed by technology that does not rely on isolated cDNA, such as next generation sequencing (NGS), no company in the US seems to be willing to take that risk. AmbryGenetics, for example, a company offering an NGS-based test for mutations in 14 breast cancer related genes, specifically excludes BRCA 1 and 2.

For patients in the US with a family history of breast cancer this is bad news, since it leaves them with Myriad as the only provider for mutation testing in BRCA. And there is no way to obtain a second opinion, particularly for negative results.

Not so in the UK. There Myriad holds fewer and more restricted patents and NewGene, a company owned by the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University, offers full sequencing of the BRCA1 and 2 coding regions and some introns. We are not saying that NewGene’s test is superior to Myriad’s, though it is certainly cheaper. But it shows that the latest technology can quite rapidly be translated into the clinic, if there are no legal hurdles.

Written By: Nicole Rusk
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  1. Discoveries should not be patented. I find it insulting that some commercial company has the right to stop me looking at my own genetic sequence. If they create a new sequence I do not have any problem with that. but genetic (sequence) information that is available to all should be as free as free speech.  

  2. The notion of patenting has been  abused. It was intended to stimulate innovation. But  Monsanto patents plants it did not develop or even modify in the least.  You have companies patenting genes they merely were the first to patent, doing nothing themselves to create, and did not even do the sequencing.

    Drugs get patented that are one atom different from the predecessor. 

    I talked with a man who worked in the Swiss patent office. (Not Einstein).  He said he had four days to decide whether to grant a patent.  The application might be 5 cm thick. Just skimming it takes a day.  It is cleverly written to make the trivial sound grandiose and to disguise prior art. 

    I think patents pending approval should be posted, allowing time for public comment on why the patent should or should not be granted. The patent clerk then gets to review that before making the final decision.

    I had a patent fight myself.  I invented a way of recording floppy discs in a way that even they suffered various common types of damage, the data could still be automatically recovered.  I sent the idea to a dozen or so backup up companies to use free of charge in their products.

    Then Peter Norton announced it was patenting the idea!  The cheek! When I complained, they gave me two free copies of the product and dropped their patent application.

  3. There have long been problems with the patent system in the US. It’s become a way for large technology companies to act as a cartel: they “trade” patents, allowing them to continue developing products whilst stifling smaller outfits. Examples of ill-considered patent grants are the patent on using XOR for cursors, Amazon one-click, the patent on round corners for phones (unusual in that Apple hasn’t agreed to swapsies with Samsung). 

    And don’t forget how bio-patents got started in the US: judicial incompetence.

  4. It’s seems highly immoral and unethical to have the permission 
    to patent anything that occurs naturally in the universe.
    So,I say screw it,use them, and ignore them.
    I wonder if it went to court could you make it seem
    like a ridiculous concept and have it thrown out.
    It’s not hard to paten things. Might it be hard to 
    make your self centred claim stand up in a court of law???

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